NaNoWriMo Hacks – Part 2

Nom nom nom words words words nom nom nom

Nom nom nom words words words nom nom nom

Welcome to part 2 of my NaNoWriMo advice on how to make it as easy as possible for yourself to keep your word count high. These aren’t writing tips per se, just some ways you can help maximise your productivity without going nuts. I’ve been a NaNoWriMo devotee since 2009 and after a rocky first year have ‘won’ every time. On with the tips!
4. Social butterfly.
I had thought that NaNoWriMo would become about staying home and making no plans whatsoever, but I actually found that counter-productive. When I tried that I went stir-crazy and became unable to concentrate on anything at all. What I think is important is a) picking your engagements wisely, and b) planning for some writing time around them. As my Birthday is in November, there’s always the worry that crazy Birthday shenanigans will hamper creativity. Last year though, my other half bought train tickets for a day trip to a really cool town that happened to be two hours away – two hours of writing there, two hours of writing back and a lovely day out too! The other day I went to a couple of exhibitions, one about Gothic fiction and the other about witches in art – both incredibly inspiring for what I’m writing. So time out from physically writing, but great food for my writing brain.
5. Planning
This could be a tricky one, as some people just refuse to plan much. And that’s fine, whatever works best for you. But me? I started out as a pantser, writing whatever came, following that white rabbit wherever he led. Which was, most often, to a dead end. And having redrafted a novel I pantsed, most of it was unsalvageable. Since I’ve started planning, in really quite a lot of detail, I never have to stop and think about what’s happening next – I’ve done all that work in advance and can concentrate on wrestling those words into the right order, knowing that they’re going to end up just where I want them. I love this chap’s approach to story structure – really helped me get my head around planning.
6. Leave it to someone else
And by someone else, I of course mean future you! You NaNo novel will not be publishable. No disrespect to you, but however well it’s going it will need redrafting at least once. And most probably a number of times. That’s the writing process. Embrace it. Don’t keep going over sentences trying to polish the language. Move on. Get a first draft finished, then worry about making each sentence the very best it can be. Who knows, when you reread your novel, you might need to remove a scene or completely rewrite it so there’s no need to get every word publication ready quite yet. Make it the best you can in the moment and move on!
7. Writin’ Juice
If all else fails, a tot of whisky isn’t the end of the world to silence your inner editor and let you get on with it! Or pour a slug o’ hooch into your coffee (a hipflask carried around can liven up a turgid Starbucks Americano too). I don’t need it to write though. I’m fine, really. I just like the taste. I don’t know where that other bottle has gone. Why’s the room spinning?
Hope some of these are useful, feel free to let me know any hacks you employ to maximise productivity.



NaNoWriMo Hacks – Part 1

Or, eating novel for breakfast, lunch and dinner

Ooooh, there's a ghost in there taking a photo of me taking a photo of it...

Ooooh, there’s a ghost in there taking a photo of me taking a photo of it…

As discussed in my last post, November is a magical time of year for me, as National Novel Writing Month rolls around once again. It’s a month where fun pastimes like film-watching, game-playing and drunk-getting are sacrificed on the altar of the great god Wordcount. The good news (for me) is that this year, as I was working on redrafting a quarter of my novel, I’m already done – a solid 35,000 words done within the first two weeks. This frees me up nicely for my Birthday tomorrow (seriously, leaving it late to buy a card guys, come on) but also left me pondering how different an experience it was to my first NaNoWriMo in 2009, when I barely scraped 40,000 words for the month. Since then I’ve hit the 50K target a fair few times, so here are a few top tips for maximising word count – some may be easy to implement, some may be for next time around.

  1. Make it easy to write

The first year I tackled NaNoWriMo it was predominantly on a combination of notebook/pen and a cheap phone with a qwerty keypad, written while out and about. I’d then type up the handwritten bits and copy the phone document into a single Word doc on my desktop at home and, if I could face it by that point, do some more writing. The following year I used a battered and pretty hefty laptop with a whopping 40 minute battery charge. Then I finally invested in a cheap netbook – Samsung NC110 – which is pretty rubbish at surfing the internet but great at running Scrivener and Word. Fits easily on my lap on the tube, starts running in seconds to maximise my lunch breaks at work, lasts for ages, and is a natty purple.

  1. Meals

This is a small, but useful tip – I cook a lot, and found that by the time I’d got home from work, caught up with my wife, cooked a meal and eaten, not only would time be ticking on with no more words to show for it, but I’d really feel like goofing off and doing something a bit mindless. These days, with a bit of planning, I make sure that all the meals I’m going to have in November are either quick and easy to prepare or make a massive amount of leftovers – so I might make a hefty pie or stew on Sunday night that lasts through most of the week, freeing up time and brain-space!

  1. Condition yourself.

Always be ready to write. Always have the tools needed to hand. This is one that I think has developed over time as my brain has got used to writing – these days I can start without needing to get ‘in the zone’ or whatnot. A great way I’ve found of developing this skill, along with just writing all the damn time, is to use the same music all along for a particular project. It might take me a while to find the right album or playlist, but when I’ve got it I don’t deviate. That way, after a few sessions, as soon as the first notes of the first song play, my brain associates it with writing and the words start to flow. Round at a friend’s house the other day, he had to make a quick work phone call. In went the headphones, on went the laptop, up went the word count.

That’s it for now – another few tips coming in a couple of days. If you’re taking part in NaNoWriMo this year, let me know how it’s going.



NaNoWriMo – My Experience

The first of November is rolling around, a date that has indelibly been stamped into my mind for the last five years. Not due to Halloween-induced hangovers or the fact that it marks a fortnight until my Birthday, but because it’s the beginning of National Novel Writing Month. I thought it worth a quick pre-NaNoWriMo post in case I sway one more person into taking part, because (spoilers!) I think it’s awesome.

Picture the scene. It’s September 2009. I’ve written a few short stories. I’ve got the first few thousand words of a couple of different novels languishing a long way short of complete. One of them, at fifteen thousand words, is the longest thing I’ve ever written. And then my wife discovers NaNoWriMo. I grumble that it’ll distract us from finishing what we’re working on, that it’s better to keep our heads down rather than start new projects. She, fortunately, ignores me, and I eventually see sense.

With no planning, and no idea of what I’m trying to say, I write a complete first draft in a month, mainly on my phone on my commute and lunch breaks, and scribbled in notebooks to be typed up later. It’s about 40,000 words, so shy of the 50,000 target, but it’s the longest thing I’ve written and my first attempt to structure a longform story. Unsurprisingly, when I read it a few weeks later, it’s Not Great. Very Not Great. But there are some interesting things in there, and having completed a first draft I begin the process of redrafting for the first time. It’s the obligatory post-apocalyptic coming of age novel, of course.

A year later, and this time I’m a bit more prepared.As well as massive supplies of tea, I have an idea of the general plot and characters for my steampunk opus. I write about 60,000 words in the month and finish it off in December with another 10,000 words or so. Upon reading it, it’s also Not Great. But I have some thoughts on why, and look up more about how to structure a plot. How to plan a novel. How to develop characters.

Next time it rolls around, rather than start a brand new project (which is what NaNoWriMo is supposed to be about – honestly though, who cares as long as it gets you novelling) I turn to the idea that’s been burning at the back of my mind all this time. One of the novels I’d started before NaNoWriMo came into my life. I spend a month plotting and squeezing my brain and then spend November completing the novel. The planning paid off – it’s a lot more coherent than my previous attempts, though needs a lot of work still.

The next year is spent redrafting that novel, A Calling-on Song, and I give NaNoWriMo 2012 a miss, but when the Summer version, Camp NaNoWriMo, approaches in 2013 I decide to take a break from redrafting. I spend a couple of months preparing a new novel, The Lord of The Dance, then kick it’s ass in a month. I write the first three quarters of it, but it’s already 80,000 words. I leave it there, happy to draft the last quarter when I’ve shored up the rest, and return to redrafting A Calling-on Song.

And now, as I’ve been blogging about, A Calling-on Song is being chucked at agents in the hopes they like it and I’m in the process of redrafting The Lord of the Dance. I’ve learnt a hell of a lot about writing, about me as a writer and about what I want out of life along the way.

Will writing a novel in a month make you a successful author? No.

Is it hard work? Yes. Oh god, yes.

Will you have to make changes to your routine to accommodate it? Yes.

Could it be the most awesome thing you ever do and change your life? Yes.

Let me know if you’re tackling it. Good luck!


Urges. How to control them and when not to.

Or, asking the impossible.


Tappity tappity tappity

Tappity tappity tappity

This is the latest in my series on trying to get published for the first time. It’s been going on six weeks since I sent my first few query letters out, and so far I’ve had three rejections with two replies still pending. It’s getting close to time to send out the next batch and I’ve discovered a new step in the process. The urge to fiddle.

It’s impossible to know the definitive reason the three agents so far haven’t wanted to read more – it could be anything from the mood they were in when they read my submission, the fact that they just signed someone with the same basic premise, something specific in the writing, something that didn’t gel in the query letter…. The list goes on. Or, as their letters stated, it could simply be the fact that this is a subjective game. It’s dependent on taste, and for everyone that thinks my book is a masterpiece (that would be, um, me) there are bound to be people who disagree or don’t engage with the subject, setting or characters.

So do I fiddle with it (the novel, I mean. Filth.)? Well without some more comprehensive feedback, I don’t think there’s any point in fiddling with the novel itself. But that’s only part of the package. There’s also the query letter and the full synopsis which give a flavour of the book and the full plot respectively. And if something is amiss in those or could be more gripping then that could potentially be a turn off for the agents.

Or… they could be fine and just waiting to get in front of someone who really engages with them. For this next batch I’m going to keep everything the same (unless any of the agents have particular stipulations of course) and then ponder anew in about eight weeks. And I shall take heart from hearing that the author of The Help, Kathryn Stockett, faced 61 rejections and three years from first submitting to getting picked up. For her it was apparently rejection number fourteen that almost broke her. I’ll let you know which number it is for me.

That’s all well and good, but what to do in the interim? I can’t just twiddle my thumbs and hope for the best, that’s no way to get anywhere. I’ve dusted off the novel (or the three-quarters-of-a-novel) I wrote the first draft of for last year’s NaNoWriMo – The Lord of the Dance – and have got well and truly stuck into the redrafting. One of the major elements that need some TLC are the characters. Perhaps because of the time constraints that NaNoWriMo brings, the characters all start fairly strong then become a bit wishy washy. I’ve decided to borrow a trick from my other half (also a writer) and try casting the novel. Alongside doing a load of other character development bits and bobs, it’ll help me get back on track if I feel them drifting again. That and, if you cast them with actors who make interesting or bold character choices then maybe some surprises will pop up. So who is in the cast? My main five are:

Shia Labeouf (that breakdown has made him so much more interesting!), Cillian Murphy, Mia Wasikowska, Ellen Paige and Adrien Brody

I’ve cast this lot based on the character elements that I’d already come up with and written 80,000 words about, but it’s made me ponder what would happen if you approached it the other way around, if you used actors as your first stepping stone into characters’ heads. And more importantly, if you could pick any five actors to sling together in a cast, who would it be?

It Took You How Long?

A while, my friends, a goodly while.

There have been a lot of these.

There have been a lot of these.

This is the second in my regular series following progress as I gear up to sending a novel off to agents for the first time, and I thought I’d take the opportunity to give a bit of background on the journey so far. The long long journey.

I’ve been a long-time advocate of National Novel Writing Month, so those who know me might be forgiven for thinking this novel was dashed off in a month but, as NaNoWriMo themselves say, it’s not quite that simple. NaNoWriMo helped me write the beginning, middle and end of something for the first time. It gave me the confidence and some of the tools necessary to turn an idea into something vaguely novel-shaped. Vaguely is the important word here.

This novel started life in 2007 when I was just beginning to explore writing for fun. I wrote 20,000 meandering words with only a very loose sense of what was going on and no sense of where it was heading. As with a couple of other projects I’d started, it then languished on a hard drive for a while, unloved but not forgotten. In the interim I discovered NaNoWriMo and in 2009 and 2010 wrote a pair of pretty short novels in a month each. I was excited with having got to the end of things finally and was starting to think more seriously about actually doing something with my writing. That in turn raised the dread spectre of redrafting, so to distract myself I returned to the idea that kept popping back into my head, the one that had budded and sprouted and grown in my imagination in the intervening years. Yeah, the one languishing on 20,000 directionless words on a semi-corrupted hard drive. In 2011 I used NaNoWriMo to finish it and ended up with a 70,000 word first draft. It even had a name finally: A Calling-on Song.

All this time I was learning more about the writing process, about breaking things down into scenes, about goals and stakes and obstacles and all that good stuff. And so, after another hiatus and plenty more research, I finally felt ready to tackle a redraft. I’ve no idea how long it actually took, but somewhere in the region of six months later it had ballooned out to a 110,000 word second draft. A quick note for the uninitiated – the general consensus is that debut novels should be around 90,000 words if a publisher is going to consider them. That’s somewhere around 350 pages. Rules do, of course, exist to be broken.

I let it sit for a while, distracting myself with yet more projects (an important part of the process which I may discuss in a future post), then in 2013 tackled the third draft to tighten it all up and kill a few of those lovely lovely darlings. I finished in October, ready to plough straight into a nice shiny new novel for NaNoWriMo, but by now I felt like I was getting somewhere. My wife, also an aspiring writer, had provided some invaluable feedback on the second draft (no-one saw the first draft but me) and now I felt like it was time to gather a few outside views. After all, it’s hard to look at something completely objectively when it’s been floating around in your head for six years.

So that’s where I am now. I’m in the process of collecting that feedback and next week will begin the fourth draft. From the opinions so far this should be a much quicker redraft, so hopefully by the end of March I’ll be ready to submit. To whom? How? I shall be covering all this and more in future posts.

How about you? How long have your novels or other creative projects been going on? Do you like having multiple things on the boil at once, or do you need something to be drafted, redrafted and redrafted again before you can contemplate moving on?